Spirit Island: Branch & Claw is a Small Expansion with a Big Impact

Spirit Island Branch & Claw Box Art
Last year we finally published a long overdue review of Spirit Island. Surprising no one, it’s one of our favorite games, which is why we put the time into writing about it so many years after its initial release (also it existed before we did). Spirit Island received two expansions; Branch & Claw in 2018 and Jagged Earth in 2020. Both of these expansions have such an impact on the broader experience that we felt they deserve their own reviews. 
Branch & Claw is the smaller of the two expansions, but arguably has the larger impact. We discussed ad nauseam in our base game review how it all works, so we’ll be skipping over that as much as possible here. If you aren’t familiar with the game’s structure, you can find our review with all those details here.
Spirit Island: Branch & Claw adds two Spirits, events, an expanded Invader Board, a new Adversary, and four new types of tokens that provide players new tools against Invaders. It all comes in a fairly small box compared to that of the Spirit Island base game, but its size is hardly indicative of its effect.
Branch & Claw released in 2018, and while I purchased it right away, it took me a few years to accept it as part of the Spirit Island experience. To me, the base game was a very mathematical game, where players have a high level of control. The invader board telegraphs their actions for the next two rounds, providing players with all they need to make informed decisions on the optimal time to redraw their power cards, or play that powerful defense card they’ve been holding onto. Even with all that information front and center, I’ve never been able to succeed in winning a game above the forth of Spirit Island’s ten difficulty levels.
This expansion significantly reduces that level of information transparency by adding a deck of event cards and a new phase in the round structure that introduces even more difficult decisions. Following the inclusion of Branch & Claw the new round structure is:
  1. Spirit Phase – Spirit growth grants new powers and greater presence
  2. Fast Power Phase -Activate played fast abilities
  3. Invader Phase
    1. Healthy/ Blighted Island Card triggers
    2. Event Card draw and resolution
    3. Earned Fear Cards trigger
    4. Invaders Ravage
    5. Invaders Build
    6. Invaders Explore
  4. Slow Power Phase – Activated played slow abilities
  5. Time Passes – Round clean-up
Event cards add an additional step to the Invader phase that can have unpredictably crippling or empowering effects to the game state. There’s nothing nothing quite like a random event card to utterly cripple your team’s plans.
Spirit Island Branch & Claw Event Card
Take the Lesser Spirits Imperiled event for example:
For flavor text, the event card reads “The Invaders’ spread is threatening many of the smaller Spirits..” There are three steps to this particular event. The first is a choice where players choose either “Tend To Your On Strength” or “Forge a Web of Mutual Support”.
Of the two choices, tending to your strength means players gain a small benefit in exchange for temporarily ignoring the needs of the island. Each player gains a single energy to spend in a future round and then discards a minor power card from the top of the deck. If that card has a leaf element on it, a blight is removed from the Blight card. If an animal element is present on the discarded card, a Dahan is destroyed from a land with blight present in it already. Players must resolve both effects.
If this event appears later in the game, it’s entirely plausible that the removed blight or Dahan will bring a brutal defeat. Worse yet, this event doesn’t offer players an mitigation tools and choosing Tend To Your Own Strength could spell disaster.
The good news is that of the two choices on the event card, this is considered to be the worse of the two options. However, beneficial as Forge A Web of Mutual Support can be, it comes at a very high price.
The mutual support option grants each player spirit access to a permanent element for the rest of the game. While this might seem insignificant at first, it’s not uncommon that an essential boost to an innate power would only be one element away. Choosing to form a web of support could permanently solve this for every player.
To earn it, however, players will have to pay a combined total of four energy per player. Many spirits have low energy generation, and spending that much energy on a single event could set them back for as long as two rounds.
The upside is that this choice is “aided by the leaf element”. What this means is that for each leaf element on a power card played this round, the total energy cost for this event is reduced by one. If that’s still not enough, instead of paying from their energy, players can discard a power card in their hand with the leaf element to apply two energy toward the cost, or they can permanently forget a power, removing it from their hand for four energy toward the cost.
On one hand, this is a great way for players to trim the fat in their deck, removing powers that have otherwise proved to be ineffective. But I’ve seen it happen a few times where players don’t have any fat to trim and must lose a powerful card to avoid a loss. Thanks to the addition of the event deck, even the best choices available are also painful ones.
Thankfully, not everything is terrible. Event cards all have multiple effects, with only the first being particularly challenging. The other two typically provide some degree of benefits to players.
Continuing with the example of the Lesser Spirits Imperiled event, the next effects is tied to the Beast tokens (more on that in a bit). The Quit The Farmed Lands effect awards players with the chance to generate one Fear per board by pushing a Beast token into a land with Invaders but no Towns or Cities. It’s a highly circumstantial reward that at the most can award one Fear per player, a quite insignificant trade off for the cost.
The third effect almost always grants players with some form of defensive ability in the form oh either straight defense value or some form or Dahan ability. In the case of the last step of our example event card, Return To Old Pillars, players can Gather (move) one or two Dahan into a space with a Dahan setup symbol. This effect is repeated once for each board. Gathering Dahan is a great way to provide the island with retaliatory defense, but unless Invaders are attacking one of those few spaces, this event card provides limited immediate return for a very high price.
If that seems a bit unfair, that’s because it is. In my experience, Spirit Island’s event card system is intended to raise the difficulty, and it does quite a bit. Our one example event card, Lesser Spirits Imperiled, has three different effects that trigger immediately that are guaranteed to negatively impact the player, and maybe lend them a hand if circumstances happen to align.
Branch & Claw comes with twenty six different event cards making it impossible to be prepared for them all at any given moment. If this were all that was included the expansion, I couldn’t recommend it to anyone. There’s no fun in raising the difficulty without providing players with tools to fight back. Branch & Claw goes as far as providing four of them.
Spirit Island Branch & Claw Tokens
Beasts, Disease, Wilds, and Strife all add player favorable abilities to the land they’re present in. During setup, one Beast and one Disease token are added to each board. Event and power cards will be the only method to add any new tokens, but those opportunities are abundant with this expansion.
Beasts – depicted by a red paw token, Beast tokens don’t have any value or function on their own. Instead, they are used by event and power cards to move through lands and deal damage to Invaders.  One of the new spirits, Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves, makes use of Beast tokens as a central thematic and mechanical function for their innate and starting abilities.
Disease – depicted by a yellow circular worm, Disease tokens prevent the next Invader Build action in the land where the token is presents, and then gets removed from the board.
Strife – depicted by a blue fist, when added to the board Strife is assigned directly to a single Invader piece by placing it underneath. Strife represents the internal turmoil amongst Invaders. This prevents the Invader assigned Strife from dealing any damage during the Ravage action.
Wilds – depicted by a swirling green ivy token, Wilds tokens prevent the next Invader Explore action in the land where the token is present, and is then removed from the board.
Each of these new mechanics are heavily influenced by event cards, often appearring and disappearing from the board at unexpected times. It’s not worth trying to anticipate when they might reveal themselves, but once they do, they are Spirit Island’s most valuable tools in buying extra time. Placing any of these tokens within the most vulnerable lands can prevent them from growing beyond Spirits’ control.
I would argue that Wilds is the most valuable of the four, followed by Disease, Beast, and finally Strife. The sequential nature of Invader actions means that the sooner you can interfere with their expansion efforts, the greater the impact of the effect. If players can use Wilds to prevent Invaders from exploring into empty lands, they can significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the possibility that Invaders will Build or Ravage that location. As helpful as the others are, they don’t have quite the same quality of ripple effect. Preventing a Build in a land containing Invaders won’t negate chances of the landed taking Blight on the next turn, Disease simply prevents Invader presence from growing worse than it already is.
But I’ve gone on long enough without addressing the stars of the show. In my opinion, the best part of the whole experience is the wide range of playable Spirits to experiment with. Branch & Claw expands that roster with Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves and Keeper of the Forbidden, both who make good additions to the character roster.
Spirit Island: Branch & Claw Sharp Fangs Behind The Leaves
Of the two, I prefer Sharp Fangs for two reasons, one great, one less so. The first reason is that Sharp Fangs was the first animal themed spirit to be released. I’m simple, love animals, and need little more justification.
But the real reason is Sharp Fangs’ high mobility and early-game versatility. Most spirits don’t have the ability to relocate their presence after they’ve been placed in a target land, but Sharp Fangs makes use of Beast tokens, not just to deal damage to Invaders, but to move presence around the board. Sharp Fangs’ innate ability, Ally of the Beasts, allows its presence to move with Beast tokens any time a Beast leaves a space with Fangs’ presence. Sharp Fangs’ can struggle in the late-game when Blight begins to spread and destroy presence on the board. By leveraging Beast tokens, Fangs’ can avoid its own destruction far better than its peers.
Keeper of the Forbidden Wilds
Keeper Of the Forbidden Wilds is the second of the two spirits and a very big boy. This monster is centered around Wilds tokens and works as great Explore prevention. Keeper effectively acts as a wall, spreading Wilds has it expands using its innate Spreading Wilds ability, dispersing explorer Invaders, placing Wilds to prevent them from, returning. The challenge is that Spreading Wilds can’t target blighted spaces. Keeper’s dependence on Wilds for expanding means that blighted lands theme to have a more negative impact on Keeper than any other spirit.
Branch & Claw also includes four scenarios and one adversary (France). I would love to go into great detail about these, but frankly, I’ve never played with any of them. In all thirty or so games of Spirit Island I’ve played, I’ve only incorporated an Adversary on two or three occasions. For those who aren’t familiar Adversaries assign special abilities to Invaders that trigger beginning at Invader Stage 2. They’re a modular ruleset that doesn’t necessarily increase the difficulty, but significantly raises level of complexity. I love Spirit Island, but in my years of playing, I have always preferred increasing the difficulty level over complexity. On one hand, I’m very happy with my anti-adversary game experience. On the other hand, it means that there are elements of Spirit Island‘s game design that I’m missing out in, even though it’s sitting on my shelf.
As a whole, I don’t enjoy this expansion as much as I wanted to. The randomness of event cards takes away from the calculable predictability of Invaders that I believe makes the base game so strong an experience.  In fact, for that reason alone, I would recommend against getting Branch & Claw. However, it’s simply the direction subsequent Spirit Island games went in. The big box standalone expansion, Jagged Earth, that released last year also uses an event deck. I can only really recommend Branch & Claw for die hard fans, completionist (because I know there are many of us), and anyone looking for an affordable way to explore some of the changes since the original release.
What Branch & Claw does well is include two moderate complexity spirits to the roster that make great use of the new token mechanics. If it were up to me, I’d play without the event cards altogether, but that would ultimately lower the effectiveness of these two otherwise enjoyable spirits. At the end of the day though, if I wasn’t a total completionist, I’d have skipped over this expansion and held off for Jagged Earth. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.

Number of Times Played: 

Seven with Branch & Claw.

Reviewed Player Counts:

One, two, three, and four players.

Supported Player Count: 

1 – 4 players.

Play Time:

90 – 180 minutes

Core Mechanics: 

Hand Management
Simultaneous Action Selection
Variable Player Powers
Open Drafting


Branch & Claw increases the complexity of an already complex game, adding extra steps and elements to keep track of. I can’t recommend this expansion for anyone who isn’t really comfortable with high complexity games. 


Greater Than Games continues to publish games with wonderful artwork.

Replay Value: 

While I don’t love the variability introduced by the event deck, it does serve to keep the experience changing from play to play.